August 9, 2021 Ska Boom! An American Ska and Reggae Oral History (Book Review)
Ska was rather popular for a while. Jamaica created it in the 1960s, forming the First Wave with the likes of Prince Buster before it caught on in the UK. This would become Ska’s Second Wave, one that introduced the likes of Madness and The Specials to the world. After that, a Third Wave hit America, and bands such as Less Than Jake mixed their Ska influences with Punk and other genres.
Oddly, it is this Third Wave of Ska that seems more looked down upon than its forebears. Many reasons have been put forth as to why this is: maybe they got overplayed or lost enough of that ‘Old Ska’ sound, becoming confused with Pop Rock groups like Smash Mouth. Or, perhaps, the music simply fell out of fashion and became dated—some may see it as quintessential ‘90s, like the biggest hits from Sugar Ray on CD.
Kidding aside, that may be an unfair assessment. Not just of Third Wave Ska, but of American Ska and Reggae artists, in general. Which is where Ska Boom! An American Ska and Reggae Oral History comes in. Published by DiWulf Publishing and released to the public on Tuesday, July 27th, 2021, author and musician Marc Wasserman (of Bigger Thomas and Rude Boy George fame) goes through the history of Ska and Reggae in the US. He chronicles the genres from the Shakers in 1973 to the Skavoovie tour of 1993 via interviews with band members from Mesphiskapheles, The Untouchables, and the The Mighty Mighty BossToneS, amongst others.
The book also includes a quick autobiographical bit on how Wasserman got into Ska and Reggae, an essay- ‘1985- The Year American Ska Broke’- by the Duff Guide’s Stephen Shafer, as well as a foreword from Horace Panter of the Specials. Wasserman’s intro is quite relatable and authentic as an outcast teen finding his voice via 2-Tone. It is also probably the only place where Coventry, Birmingham and London are called ‘exotic’.
The essay also makes for a fascinating read, as well, recalling the rise of bands like The Toasters and Fishbone in 1985 after years of confusion about the genre. Shafer’s explanation for the US mainstream taking longer to warm up to Ska sounds about right for the time, as well.
However, the main portion of the book does what it says in the title- transliterating the bands’ words from interviews into print. It makes the book a fairly brisk read chapter by chapter. Of particular interest is the first chapter on the Shakers, as it is hard to imagine Reggae as being that obscure, let alone, hearing of a record producer who did not know of its most famous performer (“Who’s Bob Marley? Does he have any hit records?”).
Throughout, Wasserman’s approach gives readers witness testimony from American Ska and Reggae performers, from the genres beginning to its peak. That said, while readers are still getting the details straight from the people who were there. In this sense, it feels less in-depth than the essay, like the chapters are bite-sized chunks of Ska and Reggae history rather than a big meal such as 33 Revolutions Per Minute (Dorian Lynskey, Harper Collins, 2010) or Revolution in the Head (Ian McDonald, Fourth Estate, 1994).
Therefore, Ska Boom! An American Ska and Reggae Oral History is not the deepest dive into Ska or Reggae, though it is still a detailed and well-told oral history of the genres within the US. Not to mention, it is easy to digest thanks to its steady serving structure, which makes it a good suggestion for newcomers to the genre and anyone just curious, in general. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this book 4 out of 5 stars.